Threshold Spaces: Saul Melman Interviewed by A.M. Homes

Life and sculpture as passage. 

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Saul Melman, Best Of All Possible Worlds, 2018. DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Boston.

I first met Saul Melman in the emergency room of a New York City hospital after a taxi I was riding in was hit by a truck. I wasn’t feeling so well. As Dr. Melman asked me questions about my head, my neck, my eyes, and my sense of well being or not, I had the strangest sensation that there was another layer to him. “Are you an artist?” I asked, as he was flicking a penlight back and forth at my pupils. He seemed startled. “How did you know?” Good question. It was something about the way he inhabited the role of doctor. He held the space, the role of doctor, with an ounce of remove, but not the kind of remove of someone who isn’t listening or doesn’t care—it was the remove of someone who is observing and watching, and of someone who cares deeply. 

Melman is a doctor and an artist. He spends his life and work in the transitional spaces between spaces where anything can—and often does—happen. In the emergency room he is called to action when the delicate balance of life itself is pushed to the brink. In his studio, he is forever pushing various elements—water, carbon, woods—past their boundaries, curious to see what will happen. His works on paper look like cells, tumors, pockets of something escaping. His photographic works look like ghostly traces from another world. What interests him is alchemy, the transmutation of matter, the idea of control while knowing there is no control. His most recent large-scale work consists of eight translucent vacuum-molded casts of wooden doors, arranged outdoors in the natural landscape in the exact configuration that marks the passageways of his Brooklyn apartment. These are the traces of his domestic-lived space. These are thresholds that change, that mutate as they catch light, as time passes.

—A.M. Homes


A.M. Homes I want to jump right in and ask: What’s the relationship between being an artist and being an emergency room doctor?

Saul Melman In both I’m paying careful attention to a material in transition. There’s an unfolding narrative, and my role is to listen and observe in order to understand which parts of the story are most important.

AMH And to discard what isn’t important. So, doctoring and art-making require a similar kind of attunement. Can you say more about how you listen to the story of a material in your studio?

SM I often begin by experimenting with materials or methods of making that are new to me, or that are difficult to control.

AMH That’s super interesting. Why? 

SM It keeps me off balance and creates a space for unexpected discoveries. I set the material in motion, try to push it past its normal limit, and then listen to where it wants to go.

AMH In your work, there’s a sense of capturing something ephemeral that might otherwise go unnoticed. And then also transforming it to some degree. Does that relate to this idea of pushing materials to their limit?

SM Yeah, definitely. By pushing a material to its limit, aspects of its nature that usually remain hidden can sometimes be revealed.

AMH You capture the material in a moment of prime intensity, similar to seeing a patient in the ER.

SM Yes, in the ER I’m experiencing a critical moment with people, when matter is spinning out of control. In the arena of the studio, I’m interested in creating a narrative that moves the curtain back to expose that vitality of matter, and to freeze those threshold moments in time.

AMH On the one hand, you’re moving the curtain back, and on the other hand you’re making the curtain say, “Look at what’s on the other side of the curtain.” Which is kind of a fascinating thing. And the materials you choose reflect that idea of ephemerality too: ice, sunlight, saliva, skin dust. How do you choose what materials to work with?

SM I like how materials can expand the range of potential meanings, how they can function both as building blocks for form, and also as poetic signifiers. During a residency in the High Desert of Joshua Tree, California, I was struck by the crystal-like intensity of the morning sunlight. I wanted to work with sunlight as my primary material. So I turned a shipping container into a giant pinhole camera and took long exposures, projected onto handmade photographic paper that I painted with a photosensitive silver emulsion.

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Saul Melman, Heliogram Series_09, 2014. Courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

AMH What are we seeing in these photo negatives?

SM I built a theatrical set and photographed a series of ritualistic actions performed at daybreak.

AMHWhat role does performance play in your process or exhibition spaces? 

SMI sometimes use performance as a way to more specifically direct the focus and attention of the viewer. For instance, in my installation in the boiler room at MoMA PS1, which was created as a six-month long performance, I appeared as a costumed caretaker, reanimating and reifying the decommissioned furnace by re-skinning it with gold leaf. Visitors in the museum moved through the space, often standing close to me, to watch the repeated action of my hand applying each leaf to the surface.

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Saul Melman, Central Governor, 2010. Performance still. Long-term installation. MoMA PS1, New York. 

AMH And you’ve got your doctor costume. The white coat.

SM (laughter) Right. Part of my practice as a physician is respecting the power of belief, ritual, and suggestion that’s inherent in the white coat. 

AMH I’m wondering if the concept of healing is also present in your sculptures? What experiences inform your projects or your approach

SM Years ago, I spent time living in the Ecuadorian rainforest studying medicinal plants with a curandero—a type of shaman. In the rainforest there’s no filter of human intervention. You’re confronted with the constant churning of growth and decay. The visceral understanding that you’re part of that simultaneous, cyclical energy—it’s terrifying and thrilling. I want to bring that regenerative energy into my work.

AMH That seems relevant to your new installation at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. The casts of doors in this sculpture—there’s destruction and emergence.

SM They’re made through a process that rips apart the original, salvaged doors, but captures the details in their surface so that the doors’ histories—the scratches and layers of old paint—become embedded in the new translucent cast. I like the fact that it’s a process I can only partially control. And the process is visible in the final object—that’s important to me. 

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Saul Melman, Best Of All Possible Worlds, 2018. Detail. DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Boston.

AMH Some people work to remove the hand. You’re actually working to maintain the presence of the hand. Do you want to tell me a little bit about the conceptual underpinnings of these? The doors are in a landscape, right?

SM Best Of All Possible Worlds has been presented in three different landscapes. The arrangement of the doors is always based on the architectural floor plan of a domestic space and oriented East-West so that the casts capture the sun’s rays and glow in the morning and evening. But the conceptual aspects of the work intentionally shift as it’s placed in conversation with each landscape. At Socrates Sculpture Park it reflected the Manhattan skyline; at the Aldrich Museum it was half-buried into a grassy hillside, like an archeological dig.

For the deCordova, the work is in an enchanted wooded area, a site that feels harmonious with narratives I’m currently thinking about. One thing that’s changed for me since the last time I installed this project is that I have a five-year-old daughter, and I’ve been thinking about her physical experience of our domestic space, and ideas of memory and forgetting. What specific details will she remember about it? What I remember from her age are the bright yellow lemons in the tree in our backyard. At the deCordova, there’s only one door that has color—purple, which is my daughter’s favorite.

AMH There’s a kind of musical structure to how the doors are aligned.

SM There’s definitely a rhythm. It’s familiar yet out of place. Hopefully a little disorienting.

AMH You can put sublime in there too. And they’re kind of like ghosts. You think:  Can I move through it? There’s a sense of being between places. Which I think is so much about the notion of existence—where does it stop and start?

SM Most of the sculpture is the empty space between and around the casts, which is of course confluent with everything else around it. 

AMH Ideas of absence and presence seem to run through your work. The bigger question is: How do you make the rules for what you do? Is it because you have an ordered mind? (laughter)

SM No! I can be messy. I had to clean up the studio before you arrived. (laughter) But that’s an interesting question. The rules come about slowly, as the voice of each work emerges. There’s an interplay between open experimentation in the studio, which gives rise to conceptual ideas, and a framework that develops over time, in which the physical materials and the conceptual narrative are informing each other.

AMH What are you working on now?

SM I’m working on a project for the Flat Files at Pierogi Gallery. It’s a series of work with abaca pulp that I make at Dieu Donné Papermill.

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Saul Melman, Untitled_03, 2015. Courtesy of Galleria Anna Marra, Rome, Italy.

AMH You can make rugs from that, right?

SM Yes. It’s also used to make rope, tea bags, even clothing. It’s really strong stuff. I pull wet abaca pulp from a vat and, and while it’s still in fluid form, I embed it with shards of ice that are infused with carbon pigment. 

AMH How is it that there are parts of it that look dimensional?

SM Initially, the freshly pulled paper pulp is really thick and malleable, like dough. I sculpt the pulp with the ice to form ridges of a varied topography, which remain after the work is dry.

AMH I really like the edges. It has a skin quality to it.

SM This part is onion-skin thin.

AMH It’s also like an x-ray or sonogram. It has those kinds of shapes to it, and forms, and variations within. You could look at it like a tumor. I mean is it solid? Has it got liquid in it? It is really beautiful. I love the way light moves through it.

SM Thank you. It’s surprising how much water is involved in making paper. Like the body, paper pulp is mostly water, but of course the water disappears in the end. When I initially started working with paper pulp, I was interested in making a mark in the pulp to show the presence of water, using a minimal amount of intervention. Melting ice became both a tool and concept for the work—a way to get at the fleeting presence of water, it’s transformation from object to liquid to—

AMH To nothing. So that the thing that was most present is absent. 

SM Yes. Exactly.

Saul Melman’s Central Governor is a long-term installation at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York. Best Of All Possible Worlds is on view at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, MA, through July 1, 2019. 

A.M. Homes is the author of twelve books, most recently, the short story collection, Days of Awe, from Viking/Random House. She teaches at Princeton University.

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